John closed his laptop and sighed. Sitting in his in-box was yet another memo from headquarters asking managers, basically, to “do more with less.” It wasn’t worded exactly that way, of course; senior leadership knew everyone was tired of hearing those words. No, the memo said something about the need to get creative and invent new organizational structures and processes. And as usual, there was very little in the way of suggestions for how to do that. John shook his head in frustration and opened his laptop. “Might as well get back to my 300 other emails,” he thought.

Leadership is about learning and expanding our organization’s horizons. The world moves too fast for leaders to consider maintaining status quo. We must focus on leading positive change, and that requires innovation. This is particularly true in a time when resources are dwindling but requirements are not. To make things more challenging, large hierarchical organizations sometimes seem designed to thwart our efforts to innovate by imposition of bureaucracy, outdated policies, and entrenched ways of thinking. It’s easy to see why someone would just want to put their head down and say, “good enough.”

Being a leader, however, means not being satisfied with the status quo. We must acknowledge that despite the limitations placed upon us, we still have an obligation to serve our organization, its mission, and the people we work with. We must further acknowledge that many of the limits we face are self-imposed. How often have we found ourselves saying, “I’m just not a creative person” or, “I’m too busy getting the basics done to try to think outside the box.” While an understandable human response to difficult challenges, this self-limiting mindset serves to diminish our power to influence and serve.

In truth, creativity is not some special talent only bestowed on famous inventors and tech company founders. We can all learn to think a little differently by understanding some basic facts about innovation:

• Innovating is, quite simply, finding better ways to do things
• We find better ways to do things by asking the right questions and being open to
• There are many simple techniques that can help us get out of our usual ruts and
see things from a different perspective

Framing questions more effectively is a simple tool we can all learn to use. Instead of, “How do we do more with less?” John might ask, “How do we do less?” or, “How can we expand our impact?” or, “What’s the larger purpose this particular goal serves; can we achieve that larger purpose a different way?” To say that we don’t have time to ask questions and frame things differently is like saying we don’t have time to stop at a gas station for directions so we’re just going to keep going in circles, lost. Effective leaders know that making time to pull their heads up from the email in-box and ask good quality questions is a priority, despite how challenging it may be.

Effective leaders also approach issues with the confidence that an answer can be found. Colin Powell said, “Optimism is a force multiplier,” meaning that an optimistic leader brings an energy to the work that imbues employees with the desire to serve well and leverages their influence and ability to bring about change.

Despite the obstacles our organizations may seem to put in our way, most want and need their leaders and employees to be innovative. We need to move beyond the mindset that there are too many barriers to overcome. In fact, the limits we struggle under don’t bind us but often lead directly to innovation. There’s a reason the phrase “necessity is the mother of invention” has been around for generations.

Telling someone you’re teleworking no longer leads to raised eyebrows or questions about how you’re able to make that work. It’s now considered just another way to get work done.

We’ve all heard the advantages of a telework environment:

• Increased productivity (up to 27% increase in productivity in a recent meta-study)

• Better recruiting (flexible work environment is now the #1 recruiting tool for new employees)

• Ability to respond to emergencies (Continuity of Operations in event disaster makes office spaces untenable)

• Reduced absenteeism (63% reduction for teleworkers in GSA study)

• Job satisfaction (Partnership for Public Service study found those Federal employees not given telework option were least likely to be satisfied)

Here’s what most people don’t realize: a telework environment creates better leaders. Here’s why:

Telework requires a focus on results, and not on activities. When employees telework, leaders can’t tell how long they worked on a project, or the means by which they accomplished their tasks. All they can see are the results of the work – a completed report; a presentation; data analysis, etc. That drives leaders to focus on clearly identifying the desired results at the start of a project. It also requires a more thorough analysis of the task before it’s given to the teleworker since daily updates/subtle corrections aren’t as easy when leaders and employees don’t share office space.

Telework requires clear identification of communications protocols and expectations; e.g. when is a phone call appropriate; when is an e-mail better; when should a meeting be held. It also reduces the number of meetings and/or requires better planning for meetings. The dreaded “let’s just get together and chat about this” time sink is greatly reduced.

Telework requires employees to make themselves more visible. To ensure teleworkers are accomplishing their work, many supervisors ask for weekly accomplishment reports. In the interest of fairness, they often ask the same of in-the-office employees. This provides an opportunity for individuals to clearly identify their accomplishments, which makes them more visible and identifies more clearly their impact on the organization. It also makes performance appraisal time much simpler for all concerned because a running tally of accomplishments have been made.

Telework requires enhanced responsiveness. When individuals are given the chance to telework, they typically increase their responsiveness to show that telework is effective and that they’re at their desks accomplishing their assigned tasks.
Here’s the thing about these four elements: we should be doing this all the time. Everyone wants to know what results are expected and appreciate not being micro-managed; all offices should have clearly established communications protocols and expectations; the accomplishment of employees should be open and visible; and employees should hold themselves to a level of responsiveness that meets the needs of the team.

The hidden benefit of telework is that it gets us back to leadership fundamentals, which all leaders need to focus on in pursuit of the organization’s mission and goals.

In a memorable scene from A League of Their Own, Tom Hanks is pleading with Geena Davis’ character not to leave the team, and when she protests, “It just got too hard” he responds, tersely, “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”

We might say the same thing about leading well through periods of organizational change. All leaders are faced with this challenge at some point in the careers—often at many points—but only a few do it with the kind of competence, resilience and optimism that inspires others to follow.

We asked leaders in one federal agency to tell us what works for them when it comes to navigating the hard transitions. Here is what they said:

• Take deep breaths and maintain your cool.
• Keep your focus on what you do for the agency, and set the example for others. What brought you here in the first place? A passion for the environment, for protecting public health, for defending our nation? It is likely that a similar passion brought your people to the organization. This is a strength to tap into.
• Acknowledge the uncertainty that comes with organizational change, both to yourself and to your people. It must be endured, and that starts with recognizing and naming it.
• Send your questions up the chain of command. Never stop asking questions. In the words of Kevin McCarthy, author of The On-purpose Person, “The quality of your leadership is determined by the quality of your questions.”
• Look to the past for success stories in dealing with transition, and share those stories.
• Constantly seek more information and share that information with others.

Lastly, remember that transition is different than change. Change is what happens externally; transition is what happens internally, the mental process people go through in adapting to the change. As with anything involving human beings, different people manage transitions differently, and at different speeds. Remember that just because some will embrace the change and get on board quickly does not mean that someone else who is fearful and resistant is being difficult. Many factors play a role, including personality type, past experiences with change, and one’s level of knowledge about and involvement in the change. Your role is to identify what kind of support each member of the team needs in order to move through his or her own transition. That’s not easy, and that’s why so many organizational change initiatives fail. Navigating the hard is what makes you great as a leader.

“Congratulations on your promotion, Mary”.

Mary was genuinely glad to see Susan, a long-time colleague and mentor. She was secretly pleased that, starting out as an intern for Susan years ago, she was now her peer in the organization. To Mary, being at Susan’s level meant that she’d finally made it.

“Thanks, Susan. Your counsel over the years is a large part of the reason I’m here. I really appreciate all you’ve done for me”.

Susan smiled. “Thank you. You made it on your own, though, Mary. It’s been a pleasure watching you succeed. Of course, you’re now in a pretty dangerous place.”

Mary was startled by Susan’s statement. “What do you mean, a dangerous place? I’ve worked a long time to get here. I think I’m finally in a position to put in place new ideas and help the organization really move forward. What could be dangerous about that?”

“One of the consequences of your new position is that people are going to look at you differently. You may feel like you’re the same person, and on the surface most of your work relationships will seem unchanged. However, in the minds of many in the organization, your new position means that your perceived ability to punish exceeds your perceived need for information. Unless you create an atmosphere in which you welcome and encourage feedback, people will stop giving it to you. One of the reasons you’ve been successful is that you listen to others and incorporate their ideas into your thinking. Along those lines, you’re very good at taking feedback. It’s not you that’ll change. It’s those who work for you. So, while they’re the ones who’ll change, you’re the one who must respond. If you don’t change your behavior, you’ll become isolated just at the time when you most need feedback.”

“I don’t understand”, Mary replied. “People seem very pleased for me, and keep offering to do whatever they can to help me be successful. I don’t think there’s an issue.”

“You’re now in a very visible leadership role. People are watching how you behave in this role. They’ve seen others in the past changed by promotions. Some are changed for the better; they use their promotion as an opportunity to better serve the organization and the people within it. Other change for the worse; they use their promotion to selfishly serve their own needs. I have no doubt you’re in the former group. Others aren’t so sure. You have to reassure them.”

“Do I just tell them that I expect them to keep talking to me and giving me feedback?”

“Setting expectations at the beginning of your tenure really does help. What makes the difference, though, is behaving in a manner consistent with your words. They’ll hear the words. They’ll see the behavior. As the old saying goes, seeing is believing. The good news is, it isn’t that hard. You simply need to demonstrate an openness to feedback. You don’t need to agree with it!”

Mary nodded her head. “Now that I think about it, you’ve always been good at that. I’m very comfortable giving you feedback or sharing bad news. I always thought it was because I was good at it! In hindsight, maybe it was because you were so open to it. How, specifically, can I do this well?”

“Here are some particular things I’ve found helpful:

Remember that feedback is just information. It can help you see your blind spots.

Breathe. Receiving feedback can trigger your “fight/ flight/freeze” reflex. You can help    overcome this by breathing deeply.

Maintain eye contact with the speaker and show an open body language. We say a lot without saying a word!

Listen carefully. Hear the speaker out.

Ask questions for clarity only; not to defend or put the speaker on the spot. Try to discern the data and assumptions behind the conclusions they have shared. It’s hard to change when all you know is that someone thinks you’re aloof. It’s a lot easier to change if you know the basis of that conclusion is that you’ve skipped three recent staff meetings. Don’t explain why you missed the meetings. That will come across as defensive. Rather, acknowledge that you can understand why they would see you as aloof when you missed the meetings.

Acknowledge the feedback. And, even if the feedback is painful…say “thank you.”

Take time to sort out what you’ve heard.”

“Thank you, Susan,” Mary replied. “That is so helpful to me. Even though we’re now officially peers, I see that you’re going to continue to be my mentor. I hope someday I can repay all you’ve done for me.”

Susan smiled. “In a way, you just did.”